In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) centres around a Victorian-era New York doctor who uses a vibrator to treat women’s “hysteria” in his home office. So you know there have to be some stimulating discussions as director Keltie Forsyth and her cast get ready to stage Sarah Ruhl’s smart, witty play for Ensemble Theatre Company this summer.
“We have had some wild conversations in rehearsal,” Forsyth confirms to the Straight over the phone. “There are nine simulated orgasms that happen on-stage in this show, so we’ve had to have some frank conversations around that. There are some men in the show, but we’ve had to talk about women’s experiences a lot—sexual, but also experiences in the medical system.”
The play, which was nominated for a handful of Tony Awards after its U.S. premiere in 2009, slyly uses the near-absurd repression and ignorance of women’s sexuality near the end of the 19th century to reflect on where we are today. While the aptly named Dr. Givings enacts his “cure”, using a device that comes thanks to the new age of electricity, his own wife is feeling unfulfilled. The irony is clear: the real action is happening not in her bedroom, but “in the next room”, thanks to a male-dominated society that refuses to see her as a real sexual being.
The medical history around the use of the vibrator, Forsyth says, is fascinating. “With hysteria, you’re giving a disease to women’s sexuality. Then you make the thing that treats it a medical procedure; the sidestep is thinking of women’s sexuality like the flu,” she says. “The vibrator was available via the Sears catalogue around the turn of the century, and then when people stopped thinking of it as a disease they became unavailable.”
A lot of the facts in Ruhl’s play come directly from Rachel Maines’s 1999 book The Technology of Orgasm, a studied but hilarious history of the use of the vibrator as a legit medical device—and then its fall into disrepute. “If you read it, you realize the most absurd things in the play are real,” Forsyth says.
Still, Forsyth is struck by how contemporary the play feels in Ruhl’s hands, even while it depicts such a surreal past. It does, after all, depict the loneliness and frustration of women faced with a fast-changing technological world. Sound familiar?
“One of the beautiful things about this play is it examines how sexual intimacy and satisfaction can bring us a lot of joy,” Forsyth observes. “And I do think we have trouble thinking about it in that way, especially now in the age of Tinder.
“We now have a generation of people who get their primary education about sexuality from pornography and who are modelling their behaviour around it. I think we are still struggling to find that real connection: we’re trying to match something that isn’t real,” she explains. “The social structures that really hold the characters in this play back—we still deal with them.”
It’s all pretty loaded territory to manoeuvre, and Ruhl manages to mix in commentary on everything from class to race. The key, Forsyth says, is her writing. Like the other two shows artistic director Tariq Leslie has programmed at the 2017 Ensemble Theatre Company repertory festival—A Prayer for Owen Meany and Master Class—it delivers a satisfying balance between laugh-out-loud comedy (just watch Givings’s miraculously cured patients as they blissfully depart his office) and deeply moving moments.
“She’s one of my favourite playwrights,” Forsyth, who completed her master’s thesis on one of Ruhl’s other well-known works, Eurydice, enthuses. “She’s funny, smart, and there’s this generosity about humankind.”
Ensemble Theatre Company presents In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) in repertory at the Jericho Arts Centre from Thursday (July 13) to August 17.